Kuril Islands

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The Kuril Islands are a string of islands extending northeast of Hokkaidô to Kamchatka, traditionally home to the Ainu and related indigenous groups. Several of the Kurils are today disputed territory between Japan and Russia.

Though at times nominally within the sphere of influence, or claim, of the Matsumae clan of Ezo (Hokkaidô) or of the Tokugawa shogunate directly, the Kurils were never directly administered or heavily settled by Japanese until the Meiji period.

The major Kuril Islands in the southern part of the chain, extending north from Hokkaidô, are Kunashiri, Shikotan, Etorofu (Iturup), Urup, and those in the north, closest to Kamchatka, are Paramushir and Shumshu.

Indigenous Peoples

The Ainu of Hokkaidô generally used words such as kur and utar to refer to indigenous groups from the Kurils or Sakhalin, in contrast to the word shisam ("the great and nearby") used to refer to Japan or Russia.

Though geographically quite distant from any major Japanese settlements, the Ainu of the Kurils engaged in some trade with Japanese merchants, including serving as a major source of sea otter pelts for Japan.[1]

Japan & Russia

Japanese first began to venture into the Kurils in the 1760s, with the first Japanese merchant ship to travel to Kunashiri, the southernmost of the islands, doing so in 1763. Though Russian ships had previously (in 1739) followed the line of islands all the way down to eastern Honshû, Russian merchants began to enter the Kurils in earnest around the same time as the Japanese, in 1765, reaching Etorofu (Iturup), the island just north of Kunashiri, in 1766. They did so in search of fur trading, and tributary relationships with the indigenous peoples, having already done so in many parts of continental Siberia, obtaining furs and other goods which could be sold overseas in China and Europe. Russians had also heard that the Japan trade could be lucrative for obtaining gold and silver.[2]

Russian encroachment into the region intensified in the 1790s-1800s, and some shogunate officials and other Japanese thinkers and writers such as Honda Rimei[3] suggested that the shogunate ought to seize Ezo, the Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin, in order to fend off the Russians and claim the Ainu (and the economic benefits they represented) more securely for Japan. Thus, in 1799, eastern Hokkaidô was absorbed into shogunal lands as a temporary measure, made ostensibly permanent in 1802. The shogunate declared the border between Japanese and Russian lands to lie in the straits between Etorofu and Urup, stationing shogunal forces on Etorofu, and assigning the Tsugaru and Nanbu clans to send troops to defend the islands in case of emergency. The shogunate also expanded efforts to secure mutually beneficial arrangements with the Ainu, in order to persuade them away from the Russian sphere of influence. To that end, in 1807, shogunate control was extended over all of Ezo, and the Matsumae clan were moved to Honshû. That same year, following the death of Nikolai Rezanov, his subordinates Khvostov and Davydov, in accordance with his plans, attacked Japanese outposts on Karafuto and Etorofu, and Japanese ships at Rishiri, took hostages, and demanded from the shogunate a firm answer as to whether it would allow Russian trade. After the Russians routed shogunal, Tsugaru, and Nanbu clan forces on Etorofu, the shogunate took a harder stance, ordering Ezo coastal defenses to be strengthened, and Russian ships to be repelled by force.[4]

The Matsumae were later returned to their lands on Ezo and to their role in overseeing matters in the north in 1821, after fears of Russian encroachment subsided.

Japan made its first formal border treaties with Russia in 1855, the Treaty of Shimoda granting the Kurils to Russia, but leaving the status of Sakhalin unclear. This represented the first treaty between Japan and any foreign power officially establishing "national" borders in the modern sense. The shogunate also at that time extended direct shogunate control over all of Ezo, in hopes of more effectively guarding against Russian incursions.

In 1875, Japan and Russia revised their formal agreements regarding borders and territorial claims; the Kuril Islands came under Japanese control in exchange for Japan relinquishing its claims to Sakhalin. The Japanese authorities discovered, however, that the Ainu of the Kuril Islands had been Russified. The inhabitants of Shumshu and Paramushir were forcibly relocated to Shikotan, one of the southernmost Kuril Islands, nearest to Hokkaidô, and efforts were made to assimilate them into Japanese culture and customs. However, the relocation resulted in disease, depression, and famine, and the community shrank dramatically; still, they retained their Russian names, dress, and customs, and even managed to convert a number of Japanese to Russian Orthodox Christianity.[5]


  1. Hellyer, 112.
  2. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 97-98.
  3. Plutschow, Herbert. A Reader in Edo Period Travel. Kent: Global Oriental, 2006. p21.
  4. Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 13-15.
  5. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan's Far North," East Asian History 7 (June 1994), 16.
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